A clan is a group of people united by actual or perceived kinship and descent. Even if lineage details are unknown, clan members may be organized around a founding member or apical ancestor. The kinship-based bonds may be symbolical, whereby the clan shares a "stipulated" common ancestor that is a symbol of the clan's unity. When this ancestor is not human, it is referred to as an animalian totem. Clans can be most easily described as tribes or sub-groups of tribes. The word clan is derived from 'clann' meaning 'family' in the Irish and Scottish Gaelic languages. The word was taken into English about 1425 as a label for the tribal nature of Irish and Scottish Gaelic society.[1] The Gaelic term for clan is fine [finɨ]. Clans preceded more centralized forms of community organization and government; they are located in every country. Members may identify with a coat of arms or other symbol to show they are an independent clan.

In different cultures and situations, a clan may mean the same thing as other kin-based groups, such as tribes and bands. Often, the distinguishing factor is that a clan is a smaller part of a larger society such as a tribe, a chiefdom, or a state. Examples include Scottish, Irish, Chinese, Japanese clans, Rajput clans, Nair Clan or Malayala Kshatriya Clan in India and Pakistan, which exist as kin groups within their respective nations. Note, however, that tribes and bands can also be components of larger societies. However, the early Norse clans, the ätter, can not be translated with tribe or band, and consequently they are often translated as house or line. The 12 Biblical tribes of Israel composed one people. Arab clans are small groups within Arab society. Ojibwa bands are smaller parts of the Ojibwa tribe or people in North America, as one example of the many Native American peoples distinguished by language and culture, most having clans and bands as the basic kinship organizations. In some cases more than one tribe recognized each other's clans; for instance, both the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes had fox and bear clans whose membership could supersede the tribe.[citation needed]

Apart from these different historical traditions of kinship, conceptual confusion arises from colloquial usages of the term. In post-Soviet countries, for example, it is quite common to speak of "clans" in reference to informal networks within the economic and political sphere. This usage reflects the assumption that their members act towards each other in a particularly close and mutually supportive way approximating the solidarity among kinsmen.

Polish clans differ from most others as they are a collection of families who bear the same coat of arms, as opposed to claiming a common descent. This is discussed under the topic of Polish Heraldry.

Clans in indigenous societies are likely to be exogamous, meaning that their members cannot marry one another. In some societies, clans may have an official leader such as a chieftain or patriarch; in others, leadership positions may have to be achieved, or people may say that 'elders' make decisions. There are multiple closely related clans in the Indian sub-continent, especially south India.

Clans by country


  1. ^ "Clan", Online Etymology Dictionary
  2. ^ "Irish Families" Edward Mac Lysaght, Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 1985

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